Going to the Margins: A 10 year experiment in South Philly

by Stephen Kriss

south phillyI’ve been in a lot of meetings where there’s discussion about decline in the church.  But every time I hear it, I think about the churches I work alongside.   While I know numbers are down in a lot of places, that is not the reality in most of Franconia Conference churches in Allentown and Philadelphia. In South Philadelphia alone, among three conference churches we have 500 members, almost 10% of the conference.  This past Sunday I spent the day visiting these congregation.

First I worshipped with Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC), which is my home congregation.   I was the oldest person on the platform during worship.   There’s a growing number of children and lack of Sunday school space.   Worship was energetic and bilingual.   The congregation counts about 150 people as part of the community.

After worship, I migrated down to the new building for Nations Worship Center (NWC).  The long delay with the permitting process is frustrating, so the congregation continue to meet in rented space on South Broad Street.   Worship attendance can go as high as 150 people not including special programs.  They’re anxious to finish the building on Ritner, about six blocks South of PPC’s building.   While they will be close to PPC, both churches reach different demographics among the 5000 or so Indonesian speakers in South Philadelphia.

After conversations at NWC, my next meeting was to explore a new facility for Centro de Alabanza.  Officially a conference member congregation only since this fall, the church needs to relocate again after outgrowing their worship space just off Passyunk.  It looks like they’ll move to purchase an old United Methodist building on Snyder Avenue.   Under the capable leadership of their pastors and a leadership team from across Latin America, the church continues to grow with over 100 adults and 50 children under the age of 18.

Just up north of these three properties is Indonesian Light Church.  It’s the smallest of our South Philly congregations and just joined the Conference this past fall.  Our Executive Minister, Ertell Whigham, was preaching this Sunday.  Emily Ralph Servant is serving as an interim pastor as they immerse themselves further in Anabaptist identity, and Bobby Wibowo from PPC is serving his seminary internship with the church.  Most of the church is from the Batak tribe from Sumatra, though they speak Indonesian as well as their tribal tongue with most members from the neighborhood, with others driving from New York to attend.

Over the last decade, unexpectedly, God has built a connection between Franconia Conference and the growing immigrant population in South Philadelphia.  This is what fruitful investment and going to the margins of our communities might mean over the long haul.  It’ll have meant purchasing about $1 million in property in the city and 500 members in the neighborhood.  But this work takes time and patience.  We’ve learned some things along the way.  And we’ll keep learning.

As we explore going to the margins again, as our churches in the Lehigh Valley and in South Philly begin to fill up and to represent increasing percentages of our Conference population, we’ll be required to rethink and reimagine what it means for us to be together.   And we’ll discover, hopefully, again the God who brings about transformation and even resurrection.

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